PRINT May 1974

Standish Lawder

STANDISH LAWDER IS AN underground filmmaker. In a sense this is an inside joke—he first made films in the basement of his home in New Haven; now he works in his basement film studio at Yale where he also teaches. Furthermore, he seldom shoots films outdoors, but works within restricted spaces, enclosed by walls, by the camera’s immobility, or perhaps by the preexisting limits imposed by his choosing to make new films from old films. Lawder is better described as an experimental underground filmmaker because of the way in which his films lead the viewer to a particular consciousness of their speculative nature.

Necrology, 1969–70, is, paradoxically, both a film containing no camera movement and an important one in the history of camera movement. The first image appears to be produced by a crane-mounted camera moving down a row of people standing on an inclined surface, such as a football stadium. People move into the frame from the bottom, then move across the frame to exit at the top. As this process continues, a viewer might begin to see the film as part of a tradition of long camera movements. Orson Welles’ 1958 Touch of Evil opens with an extraordinarily complex camera movement over three minutes long. Jean-Luc Godard’s 1968 Weekend contains what appears to be a 15-minute tracking shot of a line of cars caught in a traffic jam, as well as a continuous six-minute movement circling the inside of a farmyard in both directions. Long camera movements range from early ones, such as those astonishing shots made from a downward moving elevator in the Babylon section of Griffith’s 1916 Intolerance, to the three hours of movements in Snow’s 1970–71 La Région Centrale. Necrology is a part of this tradition, but not for the reason a viewer might initially assume.

The camera moves without a pause down an apparently endless row of people. At first, the viewer may think that something equivalent to my football stadium/huge crane situation is the source of the images; next the viewer may be awed by the length of the camera movement; then doubt about the football stadium/ crane explanation may begin because no crane is that big; finally the viewer may realize that something else is happening. The explanation that there could be a camera movement producing the effect seen in Necrology gradually ceases to be plausible. At this point, an observant viewer may begin to look beyond the procession of people and see the metal steps of an escalator behind them. This seems to be an explanation: the people are moving on an escalator, and the camera is stationary. It only looked like it was going to be the longest camera movement in the history of film—there was no camera movement at all.

Is it as simple as that? The image in Necrology could be made by a camera moving down and in front of a vertical row of people in a stadium. In order to produce this direction of movement by filming an escalator with a stationary camera, the people should be riding an up escalator. People riding an up escalator face the steps, but the people in Necrology are facing the camera. The viewer is bewildered and increasingly conscious of the mysterious quality of the images. The images, which initially seemed so simple, now appear enigmatic. The organization of Necrology leads the viewer to gradual consciousness of an initially unimagined complexity behind the creation of the images. Thus, the structure of the film directs the viewer toward an awareness of the filmmaking process. A tricky special-effects shot in a Hollywood film and particular shots in other films produce this awareness: in both Murnau’s 1927 Sunrise and Welles’ 1942 The Magnificent Ambersons, shots show the metal tracks guiding the camera’s movement. Lawder is more subtle: the form of his film extends a growing awareness of the film medium over the entire length of the work.

To settle the Necrology mystery: the film is composed of a single continuous shot of a rush-hour crowd descending into New York’s Grand Central Station from the Pan Am Building on one of a row of four escalators. A 16 mm Arriflex S camera was placed on a platform built on top of an eight-foot stepladder, adjusted for focus and exposure, switched on and allowed to expose the entire film load in a 400-foot magazine. The footage in the film actually resulted from the fourth expedition to the escalators. Each time Lawder narrowed the field of view until finally only the individuals on a single escalator remained to be seen. During the last take, the film was run through the camera in reverse at a speed resulting in a barely perceptible slow motion. Then this footage was manipulated in printing to produce the mysterious images of Necrology.

A viewer can go through this process of seeing a long camera movement, seeing people standing on a moving escalator, and finally becoming confused about what is being seen; it is one of the principle ways the film sustains interest. However, Necrology’s importance is that even after the mystery is understood, it is not possible to see the film as the documentary of Grand Central Station’s escalator crowd it is known to be. The viewer can shift between perceiving it as a camera movement down a row of people or as people standing on an up escalator, but it is not possible to perceive it as people riding down an escalator—it cannot be seen as what it is known to be. Because of this, a viewer with an awareness of camera movement as one of the major stylistic traditions of film can appreciate the film as a particularly subtle comment on that tradition. Necrology reminds that camera movement is a perceptual category, not a technical category.

About this distinction, when we say we have seen a camera movement we ordinarily mean we have seen a particular kind of movement on a screen’s surface. We call it a camera movement because a moving camera is the usual way of producing this visual effect. The technical means of producing the visual effect provides its name. Necrology is a counterexample to this mode of speech. It is perceived as a camera movement but there is no camera movement. The film reminds us that we base our usage of the term “camera movement” on our perception, not on what we know about the technical means used to produce the effect.

A corresponding counterexample to our use of the terms “editing” or “montage” as technical categories could exist. If all the lights on a set were switched off for a fraction of a second during filming, the visual effect would be a slight jump in the position of the actors, but the unexposed black frames would probably not be noticed. This would be perceived as a jump cut, as the result of editing, but there would have been none. Thus both “editing” and “camera movement” are categories assigned in practice on the basis of what we see, not on the basis of what we know about the technical means used to produce these effects. Lawder’s film elegantly illustrates this.

I have been discussing Necrology as part of a camera movement tradition in film, but it can be appreciated without any awareness of this aspect. The sound for the escalator sequence is a pompous Sibelius symphony. The score and the title make the New York rush-hour faces seem especially solemn; they look dead. As the escalator sequence ends and the credits roll onto the screen, the score changes to bullfight intermission music played by the Spanish National Airforce Academy Band. The entire film quickly becomes a comedy as the long cast list moves across the screen: “Man Whose Wife Doesn’t Understand Him,” “Fugitive, Interstate,” “Pornographer,” “Ghost Writer,” and so on until the viewer thinks that each person on the escalator has been identified. It’s hilarious. It’s also a fake—the names and descriptions are inventions except for a few like “Standish D. Lawder, Filmmaker.” He has made a serious film and transformed it into a comedy.

Necrology is less than 12 minutes long. I have discussed it thoroughly because it is one of Lawder’s best and most important films, and because most of the points I have made about it relate to his other films. Essentially I have made three points: first, the film leads the viewer to a particular sort of consciousness of the filmmaking process; second, it concerns the camera-movement tradition in film history; third, it explores the possibility of taking film images already experienced as serious and transforming them into comic ones.

Eleven Different Horses is Lawder’s first footage. In 1949 he filmed his brother chasing a horse in Wyoming. Twenty years later in New Haven he used 14 seconds of his footage to make a film, repeating the show 11 times to form the central images of the three-and-one-half-minute film. As the numbered images of the horses appear in succession, the viewer first wonders whether there are several horses or only one horse. The horses and action look the same, but each section changes in ways that make the viewer uncertain: the direction of movement is reversed with each new section: each of the 11 shots is progressively more overexposed; and there are color variations. The film becomes a mystery like Necrology.

In thinking about the relation between the title and the changing images of the horses, the viewer is again led to a consciousness of the filmmaking process. Are these a series of different takes of the same action, or, could the variations have been performed on a single piece of exposed film? These questions lead to a close scrutiny of the 14-second shot. Since the camera movement follows the action, the viewer looks repeatedly at a camera movement which is only interesting because it is Lawder’s first and also of a sort that is almost never noticed. (Camera movements following a moving object filmed are seldom consciously noticed; if the camera moves and the object filmed is stationary, the movement is much more likely to be noticed. In a similar exploration of the perception of camera movement, Necrology had led the viewer to an awareness of the appearance of camera movement by producing the illusion of one with a stationary camera, and then guilding the viewer to an awareness that it was an illusory movement.

An amusing Lawder touch in Eleven Different Horses involves the progression of the images from underexposure to overexposure. By the 11th time the same shot of the bolting horse has been seen, a viewer may feel that there has been too much exposure to the shot, and at that point the image is literally overexposed. Another example of Lawder’s wit is that each shot of the horse is two frames longer than the preceding one. This extension could never be seen in the film under normal projection conditions, but it kids any critic who might comment that all the images are the same length. The same kind of private joke occurs in Corridor when Lawder leaves two frames showing his feet in the section in which the camera is spinning on a bar in the center of the corridor. This image can be seen, but only if a viewer knows about it in advance.

Eleven Different Horses is based on 14 seconds of film. Runaway, 1969, is a longer and better film, based on four seconds of a cartoon called The Fox Hunt. In Runaway seven dogs first run to the right, stop, stick up their ears, reverse their direction, then run to the left, stop, stick up their ears, and then reverse their direction again. This frantic running back and forth is repeated continuously. The viewer might first assume that Lawder has drawn the entire animated sequence frame by frame. As the cycle is repeated over and over, it seems less and less likely that he would have drawn the 200 frames which would compose each eight-second, back-and-forth cycle. There should be an easier way. At this point the viewer can be led through the same questioning process as with other Lawder films. Something about the images raises the question of how they were created; in this case it is the smoothness and repetition of the dogs’ motion and the slight jumps in the landscape in the background.

I have watched a professional animator examine the film frame by frame and remain unable to figure out how it was made. Lawder took four seconds from the cartoon and formed it into a Moebius strip. The part he chose consisted of the dogs running in one direction, stopping, and then reversing their direction. When this two-foot piece of 16 mm film had its ends joined together after the film had been twisted once, a Moebius loop was formed. When this is projected, or printed over and over on a roll of film, the result is the seamless back-and-forth running. It is difficult for most viewers of Runaway to visualize why the images work as they do, even if they know he used a Moebius loop.

Runaway actually is much more complex than I have indicated. The image of the dogs first appears on a TV screen, and throughout the film there are shifts between a filmed video image and a film image. The video image sometimes fills the screen, and sometimes it is enclosed in the borders of a TV screen creating the effect of a screen within a screen. Another change is from a normal image to a negative one with the black-and-white areas in reversed positions. Several black frames at intervals in the film create flicker effects. The dogs race frantically back and forth to the accompaniment of a few repeated bars of organ music.

The film proceeds at this mad pace until it is shown breaking on the screen. The break looks like exactly what it is—like a filmed representation of a broken film, not like a breaking film. At this moment the viewer is reminded of the other illusions in this film.

The major illusion in the film is motion. For example, zoom shots open and close the film. Zooms look like camera movements, but as camera movements, they are pure illusion. The camera never moves in Runaway. All its motion is created by these zooms or frame-by-frame animation drawing. As the dogs continue to run, the viewer can gradually begin to see through the illusion of motion created by animation. The camera stops seeming to track alongside of the running dogs. The dogs stop moving. Now the background of trees seems to move and the dogs run in place. The dogs start to look like they are going nowhere. As the film progresses the dogs lose their illusion of motion, but they still function as a metaphor for directionless action. Instead of running back and forth and going nowhere, they run in place and go nowhere.

Runaway and Eleven Different Horses are both made from previously existing pieces of exposed film. Roadfilm, 1969, is another example of this genre. It is formed of some footage from the same cartoon used for Runaway, some other found footage and some footage by Lawder of flashing lights, all edited to the Beatles’ song, “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?” Color Film, another of Lawder’s short films, is a continuous shot of the side of a projector with pieces of brightly colored film running through it. As each new color reaches the point in the projector where light would pass through the film to form the image on some unseen screen, a title announcing the color appears on the screen beside the image of the projector. The first titles seem so brief that they cannot be read. Although their length remains a constant two frames, the viewer gradually becomes able to read them. But even after this point is reached, it is not possible to perceive whether or not the titles are synchronized to the film reaching the light source in the projector. They are, but the interesting aspect of seeing the film is sensing that it is possible to read a two-frame title but impossible to see its relation to something else on the same screen. Another “two-frame” film is called Intolerance Abridged. This recent film was made from D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance. Every 26th frame of Griffith’s three-hour film is printed onto two successive frames to form Lawder’s abridged version. I cannot decide whether the film should be ’considered as a serious attempt to search for Griffith’s style or as a joke. Nor can I decide whether I would place this film before or after a complete version of Intolerance. Is it a preview or a review?

Dangling Participle, 1970, is Lawder’s most complex found footage film. It is so carefully put together from a number of prints of six ’50s classroom films and a sex education record that the viewer might think it is authentic. A more typical reaction during the first viewing is not to think about it at all—it is just seen as a funny film. A viewer seeing the film a second time can begin to ask the questions that Lawder films usually raise about the process of their creation. This can lead to a consciousness of the repetition of some of the images—Fernand Léger’s 1924 Ballet Mécanique can repeat images, but not a ’50s educational film—and of the improbability of a teacher making the comments found in the narration. As this questioning continues, the film begins to look different, to look like a film made from other films with the narration built up by joining pieces of a tape recording. It is the best example of Lawder’s interest in reversing the viewer’s anticipated reaction to a film: cartoons are funny; sex-education films are serious. Lawder uses cartoons in ways that are not funny (Runaway, Roadfilm) and has made a hilarious sex education film.

Corridors are enclosures for moving people. They are spaces that are moved through, not looked at. Corridor, 1968–70, starts with an extended camera movement down the entire length of the corridor outside Lawder’s film history classroom. On first viewing, this can be taken as a conventional camera movement showing the size of the space relative to a person moving through it with a hand-held camera. But like many other beginnings of Lawder films, it is more complex than it first seems. The opening shot actually extends the corridor in both space and time. The shot combines the effects that would be seen by a human eye which had sharply focused peripheral vision and was simultaneously looking through the wrong end of a telescope. This is the appearance of a shot made with a wide-angle lens—in this case a 5.7 mm on a 16 mm camera. The time is extended through the use of slow motion—54 frames per second. These are not likely to be sensed during a first viewing: if the viewer had ever been in the corridor then the peripheral vision effect or the extended length would be obvious camera produced distortions. Or, if a person were seen walking in the corridor, the degree of slow motion would be apparent. As it is, the corridor only looks like an extremely long space being moved through very slowly. When the camera reaches the end of this two-and-one-half-minute exploration, there is a cut back to a shot from the starting position and a change in the electronic music sound track. At this point the film begins again, but this time the space is shown in an extremely complex series of images.

The opening shot of Corridor contains both the subject matter and the method of the film. However, the viewer only gradually becomes conscious of this, and in a similar way to other Lawder films. In this film, space is examined in ways which emphasize the differences between film image and vision. In less carefully worded phrases, the film concentrates on distorted images. After the first subtly distorted shot, the film becomes a flashing, rhythmical, pulsating series of images. The black-and-white images seem to be showing every detail of the space in as many ways as are possible in a 21-minute film: wobbly movements down the corridor; positive and negative images; images produced by a camera whirling around a bar placed in the center of the corridor; a nude woman standing with her limbs spread as if to give a human measurement of scale to the space; and superimpositions of five images. These images are accompanied by an electronic music sound track of comparable complexity and intensity. It is in part a Terry Riley composition and in part Lawder’s own work. The images and music combine to produce a sense of constant movement—nothing is static in Corridor. This is absolutely appropriate in a film based on a camera moving through a space designed for moving people.

Lawder worked on Corridor for two years before finishing it in 1970. His next major project was Raindance, completed in 1972. Its source is an animated film, History of the Cinema, describing how the film industry moved to California because it needed 365 days of sunshine a year. A camera is set up for filming, and, sure enough, along comes a rainstorm. At this point in watching the film, Lawder made a decision similar to the one resulting in Runaway. He took a funny section of a film and made it into a serious film. And he took a few seconds of another film and made it into an entire film.

Raindance begins with the sequence of the animated film leading up to the rainstorm. When the rain starts to fall, Lawder’s part of the film begins. These few seconds of drawn abstract designs are used as a basis for the variations that compose the film. The individual frames of raindrops were filmed and refilmed by Lawder using his homemade optical printer.1 The images on the screen may be the result of 30 refilmings of the frames of the original footage. The color of a frame may be the result of making a film of the raindrops, making a film of that film, and so on through 30 generations. This film is Lawder’s most radical transformation of found footage.2

Raindance is also a film about the possibilities inherent in the single frame of film. Lawder had used small numbers of frames effectively in Runaway and Corridor; however this film is 15 minutes long and largely composed of sequences in which the effects produced by single frames dominate. An exemplary sequence lasts less than a second: three frames of raindrops, one clear frame, two different frames of raindrops, one opaque black, one clear, three of raindrops, one clear, two of different raindrops, one of opaque black, one clear. The result of using sequences like this, and an electronic music sound track by Robert Withers, is a film with a flashing intensity similar to Corridor. Raindance also has the added element of color. The raindrops produce afterimages and color effects which function as another level of complex visual material added to the already dense material of the frame by frame variations.

John W. Locke



1. Optical printers are machines which have been used for trick effects since the late ’20s. They function by making a film of another film. An example of the kind of effect they can produce is seen when one image pushes another image off the screen. This is the “wipe” common in 1930s films. They can also be used to superimpose images and to gradually enlarge a part of an image so that it fills the entire frame. Raindance could not have been made without this machine.

2. Among the sources for Lawder’s films are: The Museum of Modern Art; The Film Makers’ Cooperative; Grove Press Films; Canyon Cinema in California; and Cooperative Cineastes, Montreal.